Plato’s Cave

Everyone’s heard of Plato, to some extent anyway; ‘Greek bloke, lived quite a while ago, had a beard’ is probably the limit of what could be considered universal knowledge. This he most certainly was, but what made him famous was his work, for Plato was taught by Socrates and was one of the finest philosophers and thinkers to grace human history. His greatest work was ‘The Republic’, a ten book piece exploring the nature of justice and government through a series of imagined conversations, hypothetical situations, metaphors and allegories.  One of these allegories has become especially linked to Plato’s name, which is somewhat surprising given how little the actual allegory is known to the world in general, so I thought I might explore it today; the allegory of the cave.

Plato believed in a separate level of reality, more fundamental than the physical world we encounter and interact with using our body and senses, that he called The Forms. To summarise briefly, a Form is the philosophical essence of an object; in the real world, a shelf is three bits of wood and some nails all joined together, but the Form of this is the ability to store some books within easy reach, for example.  Without the essence of shelf-ness, the shelf literally is nothing more than some wood, and ceases to be a shelf on a fundamental level any more. Similarly, when we turn a piece of plastic into a toy, we have fundamentally changed the Form of that plastic, even though the material is exactly the same.

Plato based most of his philosophical work around his Theory of Forms, and took the concept to great extremes; to him, the sole objective scale against which to measure intelligence was one’s ability to grasp the concept of the Form of something, and he also held that understanding the Form of a situation was the key to its correct management. However, he found his opinions on Forms hard to communicate to many people (and it can’t have helped that he was born to a rich family, where he was given plenty of opportunity to be intelligent, whilst many of the poor were uneducated), and some considered him to be talking rubbish, and so he came up with the allegory of the cave to explain what he was on about.

Imagine a large group of prisoners, chained to the wall of a cave for some unspecified reason. They are fixed in position, unable to move at all, and their necks are also fixed in position so they cannot look around. Worst of all, however, they have absolutely no memory of the world or how anything in it works; in many ways, their minds are like that of a newborn toddler trying to grasp the concept of the world around him. Everything they are to know must be learnt from experience and experimentation. But in front of them, they can see nothing but bare rock.

However, there are a few features of this cave that make it interesting. It is very deep and comprises multiple levels, with the prisoners at the bottom. On the level above the prisoners, and directly behind them, is an enormous fire, stoked and fed day and night (although being at the bottom of a cave, the prisoners don’t have any concept of day and night), brightly illuminating the wall that the prisoner’s see. Also on the level above, but in front of the fire, is a walkway, across which people walk along with their children, animals and whatever items they happen to be carrying. As they cross in front of the fire, their shadows are cast onto the wall the prisoners can see, and the sounds they make echo down to the prisoners too. Over time (and we’re presuming years here) the prisoners get used to the shadows they see on the wall in front of them; they learn to recognise the minute details of the shadows, to differentiate and identify them. They learn to call one figure a man, another a woman, and call others cat, dog, box, pot or whatever. They learn that sometimes it gets cold, and then hot again some time later, before reverting back to cold (thanks to the seasons). And then, they begin to make connections between the echoes they hear and the shadows. They learn that man shadows and woman shadows talk differently from one another and from dog shadows, and that basket shadows make hardly any noise.

Now remember, we’re presuming here that the prisoners have no memory/knowledge of the ‘real world’, so the shadows become, to them, a reality. They think it is the shadows of a dog that make the barking sound, and that when the shadow of a clay pot is dropped and breaks, then it is the shadow that has broken. Winter and summer are not caused by anything, they merely happen. What is to us merely an image of reality becomes their reality.

Now, Plato has us imagine we take one of our prisoners away; free him, show him the real world. As he says, if we suppose “that the man was compelled to look at the fire: wouldn’t he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real?” Wouldn’t he be simultaneously amazed and terrified by the world he found around him, to see a fully-fledged person causing the shadow he had once thought of as a fundamental reality? Perhaps he would be totally unable to even see, much less comprehend, this strange, horrifying new world, unable to recognise it as real.

However, humans are nothing if not adaptable creatures, and after some time ‘up top’ our freed prisoner would surely grow accustomed to his surroundings. He would see a person, rather than their shadow, think of putting something in a box, rather than seeing a black square on a wall, and would eventually feel confident enough to venture out of the cave, look at and comprehend the sun, and eventually even recognise it as “source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing”. (Plato often used the sun as a metaphor for enlightenment or illumination from knowledge, so here it represents the prisoner’s final understanding of the nature of reality).

Now, our prisoner could be said to be educated in the ways of the world, and after a time he would surely think back to those long days he spent chained to that wall. He would think of his fellow prisoners, how piteous their lives and their recognition of reality was when compared to him, and how much he could teach them to aid their understanding and make them happier. “And wouldn’t he disdain whatever honours, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which?”. So, Plato has our man return to his cave, to his old spot, and try to teach his fellow prisoners what reality really is.

And it is here where Plato’s analogy gets really interesting; for, rather than accepting this knowledge, the fellow prisoners would be far more likely to reject them. What are these colour things? What do you mean, stuff goes ‘inside’ other things- there are only two dimensions. What is this big fiery ball in this ‘sky’ thing? And, after all, why should they listen to him; after so long away, he’s going to be pretty bad at the whole ‘guessing what each shadow is’ business, so they would probably think him stupid; insane, even, going on about all these concepts that are, to the prisoners, quite obviously not real. He would be unable to educate them without showing them what he means, because he can’t express his thought in terms of the shadows they see in front of them. If anything, his presence would only scare them, convince them that this strange ‘other world’ he talks about is but a feat of madness causing one’s eyes to become corrupted, scaring them away from attempting to access anything beyond their limited view of ‘shadow-reality’. As Plato says, “if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn’t they kill him?”

To Plato, the world of his Forms was akin to the real world; true, enlightened, the root cause of the physical reality we see and encounter. And the real, material world; that was the shadows, mere imprints of The Forms that we experienced as physical phenomena. We as people have the ability to, unlike the prisoners, elevate ourselves beyond the physical world and try to understand the philosophical world, the level of reality where we can comprehend what causes things, what things mean, what their consequences are; where we can explore with an analytical mind and understand our world better on a fundamental level. Or, we can choose not to, and stay looking at shadows and dismissing those willing to think higher.

The President Problem

As one or two of you may have noticed, our good friends across the pond are getting dreadfully overexcited at the prospect of their upcoming election later this year, and America is gripped by the paralyzing dilemma of whether a Mormon or a black guy would be worse to put in charge of their country for the next four years. This has got me, when I have nothing better to do, having the occasional think about politics, politicians and the whole mess in general, and about how worked up everyone seems to get over it.

It is a long-established fact that the fastest way for a politician to get himself hated, apart from murdering some puppies on live TV, is to actually get himself in power. As the opposition, constantly biting at the heels of those in power, they can have lots of fun making snarky comments and criticisms about their opponent’s ineptitude, whereas when in power they have no choice but to sit quietly and absorb the insults, since their opponents are rarely doing anything interesting or important enough to warrant a good shouting. When in power, one constantly has the media jumping at every opportunity to ridicule decisions and throw around labels like ‘out of touch’ or just plain old ‘stupid’, and even the public seem to make it their business to hate everything their glorious leader does in their name. Nobody likes their politicians, and the only way for them once in power is, it seems, down.

An awful lot of reasons have been suggested for this trend, including the fact that we humans do love to hate stuff- but more on that another time, because I want to make another point. Consider why you, or anyone else for that matter, vote for your respective candidate during an election. Maybe it’s their dedication to a particular cause, such as education, that really makes you back them, or maybe their political philosophy is, broadly speaking, aligned with yours. Maybe it’s something that could be called politically superficial, such as skin colour; when Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980 it was for almost entirely that reason. Or is it because of the person themselves; somebody who presents themselves as a strong, capable leader, the kind of person you want to lead your country into the future?

Broadly speaking, we have to consider the fact that it is not just someone’s political alignment that gets a cross next to their name; it is who they are. To even become a politician somebody needs to be intelligent, diligent, very strong in their opinions and beliefs, have a good understanding of all the principles involved and an active political contributor. To persuade their party to let them stand, they need to be good with people, able to excite their peers and seniors, demonstrate an aligning political philosophy with the kind of people who choose these things, and able to lay everything, including their pride, in pursuit of a chance to run. To get elected, they need to be charismatic, tireless workers, dedicated to their cause, very good at getting their point across and associated PR, have no skeletons in the closet and be prepared to get shouted at by constituents for the rest of their career. To become a leader of a country, they need to have that art mastered to within a pinprick of perfection.

All of these requirements are what stop the bloke in the pub with a reason why the government is wrong about everything from ever actually having a chance to action his opinions, and they weed out a lot of people with one good idea from getting that idea out there- it takes an awful lot more than strong opinions and reasons why they will work to actually become a politician. However, this process has a habit of moulding people into politicians, rather than letting politicians be people, and that is often to the detriment of people in general. Everything becomes about what will let you stay in power, what you will have to give up to allow you to push the things you feel really strong for, and how many concessions you will have to make for the sake of popularity, just so you can do a little good with your time in power.

For instance, a while ago somebody compiled a list of the key demographics of British people (and gave them all stupid names like ‘Dinky Developers’ or whatever), expanded to include information about typical geographical spread, income and, among other things, political views. Two of those groups have been identified by the three main parties as being the most likely to swing their vote one way or the other (being middle of the road liberal types without a strong preference either way), and are thus the victim of an awful lot of vote-fishing by the various parties. In the 2005 election, some 80% of campaign funding (I’ve probably got this stat wrong; it’s been a while since I heard it) was directed towards swinging the votes of these key demographics to try and win key seats; never mind whether these policies were part of their exponent’s political views or even whether they ever got enacted to any great degree, they had to go in just to try and appease the voters. And, of course, when power eventually does come their way many of their promises prove an undeliverable part of their vision for a healthier future of their country.

This basically means that only ‘political people’, those suited to the hierarchical mess of a workplace environment and the PR mayhem that comes with the job, are able to ever get a shot at the top job, and these are not necessarily those who are best suited to get the best out of a country. And that, in turn means everybody gets pissed off with them. All. The. Bloody. Time.

But, unfortunately, this is the only way that the system of democracy can ever really function, for human nature will always drag it back to some semblance of this no matter how hard we try to change it; and that’s if it were ever to change at all. Maybe Terry Pratchett had it right all along; maybe a benevolent dictatorship is the way to go instead.

The Land of the Red

Nowadays, the country to talk about if you want to be seen as being politically forward-looking is, of course, China. The most populous nation on Earth (containing 1.3 billion souls) with an economy and defence budget second only to the USA in terms of size, it also features a gigantic manufacturing and raw materials extraction industry, the world’s largest standing army and one of only five remaining communist governments. In many ways, this is China’s second boom as a superpower, after its early forays into civilisation and technological innovation around the time of Christ made it the world’s largest economy for most of the intervening time. However, the technological revolution that swept the Western world in the two or three hundred years during and preceding the Industrial Revolution (which, according to QI, was entirely due to the development and use of high-quality glass in Europe, a material almost totally unheard of in China having been invented in Egypt and popularised by the Romans) rather passed China by, leaving it a severely underdeveloped nation by the nineteenth century. After around 100 years of bitter political infighting, during which time the 2000 year old Imperial China was replaced by a republic whose control was fiercely contested between nationalists and communists, the chaos of the Second World War destroyed most of what was left of the system. The Second Sino-Japanese War (as that particular branch of WWII was called) killed around 20 million Chinese civilians, the second biggest loss to a country after the Soviet Union, as a Japanese army fresh from an earlier revolution from Imperial to modern systems went on a rampage of rape, murder and destruction throughout the underdeveloped northern China, where some war leaders still fought with swords. The war also annihilated the nationalists, leaving the communists free to sweep to power after the Japanese surrender and establish the now 63-year old People’s Republic, then lead by former librarian Mao Zedong.

Since then, China has changed almost beyond recognition. During the idolised Mao’s reign, the Chinese population near-doubled in an effort to increase the available worker population, an idea tried far less successfully in other countries around the world with significantly less space to fill. This population was then put to work during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, in which he tried to move his country away from its previously agricultural economy and into a more manufacturing-centric system. However, whilst the Chinese government insists to this day that three subsequent years of famine were entirely due to natural disasters such as drought and poor weather, and only killed 15 million people, most external commentators agree that the sudden change in the availability of food thanks to the Great Leap certainly contributed to the death toll estimated to actually be in the region of 20-40 million. Oh, and the whole business was an economic failure, as farmers uneducated in modern manufacturing techniques attempted to produce steel at home, resulting in a net replacement of useful food for useless, low-quality pig iron.

This event in many ways typifies the Chinese way- that if millions of people must suffer in order for things to work out better in the long run and on the numbers sheet, then so be it, partially reflecting the disregard for the value of life historically also common in Japan. China is a country that has said it would, in the event of a nuclear war, consider the death of 90% of their population acceptable losses so long as they won, a country whose main justification for this “Great Leap Forward” was to try and bring about a state of social structure & culture that the government could effectively impose socialism upon, as it tried to do during its “Cultural Revolution” during the mid-sixties. All this served to do was get a lot of people killed, resulted in a decade of absolute chaos, literally destroyed China’s education system and, despite reaffirming Mao’s godlike status (partially thanks to an intensification in the formation of his personality cult), some of his actions rather shamed the governmental high-ups, forcing the party to take the angle that, whilst his guiding thought was of course still the foundation of the People’s Republic and entirely correct in every regard, his actions were somehow separate from that and got rather brushed under the carpet. It did help that, by this point, Mao was now dead and was unlikely to have them all hung for daring to question his actions.

But, despite all this chaos, all the destruction and all the political upheaval (nowadays the government is still liable to arrest anyone who suggests that the Cultural Revolution was a good idea), these things shaped China into the powerhouse it is today. It may have slaughtered millions of people and resolutely not worked for 20 years, but Mao’s focus on a manufacturing economy has now started to bear fruit and give the Chinese economy a stable footing that many countries would dearly love in these days of economic instability. It may have an appalling human rights record and have presided over the large-scale destruction of the Chinese environment, but Chinese communism has allowed for the government to control its labour force and industry effectively, allowing it to escape the worst ravages of the last few economic downturns and preventing internal instability. And the extent to which it has forced itself upon the people of China for decades, forcing them into the party line with an iron fist, has allowed its controls to be gently relaxed in the modern era whilst ensuring the government’s position is secure, to an extent satisfying the criticisms of western commentators. Now, China is rich enough and positioned solidly enough to placate its people, to keep up its education system and build cheap housing for the proletariat. To an accountant, therefore,  this has all worked out in the long run.

But we are not all accountants or economists- we are members of the human race, and there is more for us to consider than just some numbers on a spreadsheet. The Chinese government employs thousands of internet security agents to ensure that ‘dangerous’ ideas are not making their way into the country via the web, performs more executions annually than the rest of the world combined, and still viciously represses every critic of the government and any advocate of a new, more democratic system. China has paid an enormously heavy price for the success it enjoys today. Is that price worth it? Well, the government thinks so… but do you?